By: Graham Webster
The alternative weekly Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., was ready to publish the product of two months of nearly sleepless reporting when a competitor nearly stole the thunder from what editor Mark Zusman calls one of the biggest stories his paper had ever published.
Nearly 11 months later, the Week got the last word when it was awarded the investigative reporting Pulitzer for Nigel Jaquiss’ expose of former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt’s hidden sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl during the ’70s.
Everyone at the Week, which has four news reporters on its 13-person editorial staff, shared Jaquiss’ glory when the prizes were announced on April 4, as Zusman says the story came out of weeks of round-the-clock collaborative effort.
The story began with a month of public records research. When Jaquiss and Zusman decided it was time to start interviewing people, they knew their aims would likely be leaked as soon as they made the first phone call. Sure enough, Zusman soon got a request that he lunch with Goldschmidt, a former Cabinet official in the Carter administration then working for the Oregon Board of Higher Education and an equity firm. After a meal during which no one brought up the story, Goldschmidt had some cryptic parting words for Zusman: “Go get ’em.”
The paper went forward ? and when it came time to seek comment from Goldschmidt, the paper faced a decision about how much advance notice to give. “In part out of respect for the guy, and because we knew this would probably be a career-ender, we gave him a week,” Zusman says.
The next morning the early notice blew up in their faces, as Goldschmidt resigned from all public positions, citing health reasons, and scheduled a meeting with rival daily The Oregonian, where he surprised all by admitting his misdeeds. Zusman had no choice but to post the story online, days before it would appear in the weekly.
Stolen thunder or not, the Week got credit for its reporting long before the Pulitzer nod. The Oregonian was criticized for being too sympathetic to Goldschmidt in its coverage, and for calling his relationship with the 14-year-old (while he was serving as Portland’s mayor) an “affair.”
Jaquiss received official word about the big win when he got a phone call from Western Union, reading a telegram from Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University. “I didn’t know Western Union still existed,” Jaquiss jokes.
The Pulitzer was only the fifth ever to be earned by a weekly, and the Week beat out finalists from The Des Moines (Iowa) Register and The New York Times. “The culture around here is that this award is serves as sort of an inspiration for everyone, not just Nigel, that this place is capable of doing world-class work,” Zusman says.